BENEATH CARL EDWARDS'S veneer of glib geniality resides a sensitive ego. For evidence, consider the press conference that followed his win in the Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono on Sunday. Seated at the podium between crew chief Bob Osborne and team owner Jack Roush, Edwards was his usual smiling self until Roush, in answer to a question about the prospect of a Cup title, delivered something of a backhanded compliment. "He wasn't ready to win a championship, I think, until this year," said Roush, who added as Edwards squirmed in his seat that his driver hadn't always had the "maturity and wisdom and presence" to deal with misfortune. While Edwards responded diplomatically, saying, "I'm better as a race car driver than I've ever been," it was obvious from his pained expression that Roush's remark had touched a nerve.
Edwards might not like it, but Roush is right. In his fourth full season on the Cup circuit, Edwards, 26, is a more complete driver. His 15 top 10 finishes lead the series, and the win at Pocono was his fourth of 2008, jumping him from fifth to third in the points standings—185 behind leader Kyle Busch, who finished 36th on Sunday. "My confidence level is really high," says Edwards, who this year is driving with more patience and control than ever before. "I feel like we have cars that are faster, or as fast, as anyone's."
That's been the case since early in the season, when Edwards won three of six races between Feb. 24 and April 6. So quick was the number 99 Ford, in fact, that several other teams asked NASCAR for an extra open test session so they could try to close the gap. According to Osborne, they wanted a chance to perfect their versions of the curved rear-end housing he had installed on Edwards's car. Other teams were experimenting with the setup—a modification that turns the rear wheels up to two degrees outward, helping the car to track more smoothly through corners—but with nothing like Edwards's success. To Osborne's dismay, NASCAR granted the extra test session, and on May 5 and 6 at Lowe's Motor Speedway he and his crew watched as teams throughout the Cup garage worked to duplicate their setup. Kasey Kahne, who was then mired in a 52-race winless streak, promptly won two of the next three races with Osborne's toed-out rear configuration.
But still nobody has equalled Edwards's consistency. It is in this aspect that he has grown the most since he took third in the 2005 Chase as a rookie. Known as an intermediate track specialist, he has shown versatility this year with his first top 10 on the half-mile Martinsville oval in March and first top five on the 2 1/2-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway in July.
And to Roush's obvious pleasure, Edwards has even raced through a little adversity. After his win at Las Vegas on March 2, NASCAR slapped him with a 100-point penalty and suspended Osborne for six races because of a loose cover on his oil reservoir. Despite finishing 42nd at Atlanta the following week—the result of a blown engine—Edwards kept his cool and reeled off three top 10s in the next five races, including a win at Texas. It was a streak that showed "maturity and wisdom and presence" in spades. "This year," says Roush, "Carl and Bob are in the same league with the best of the best."
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